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American History II


Truman, the Fair Deal, and the Cold War

            The American public was shocked to hear of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945. Probably no one was more shocked than his current vice president, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972). When Truman became president, he a political unknown outside the Senate and his native Missouri. Having served as Roosevelt's vice president for only three months, Truman realized that he would have to negotiate how to continue Roosevelt's New Deal policies with an increasingly conservative Congress. Upon learning that he would be taking over the presidency, Truman told reporters, "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don't know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me." This type of communication was typical for Truman, who was called the "common man's common man."   Two of the phrases for which Truman is best known are "The buck stops here" and "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

            At times a humble man, Truman is one of few 20th century presidents who was neither a college graduate nor a lawyer.  He could also show a lot of courage and determination; but his decisiveness often came across as brashness. Truman was really only the third president to be covered in filmed newsreels, the second president of the era in which presidents communicated through radio, and the first president who received some television coverage. Americans were sometimes shocked by their president's colorful speech, especially after twelve years of the upper-class style of Franklin Roosevelt. Truman's daughter Margaret was the first child of a president to receive significant media attention; she had decided on a career in music for herself and hoped to become an opera star. When Washington Post correspondent Paul Hume wrote a negative review of Margaret's concert debut in Washington D.C., her fiercely proud father, the president, immediately dashed off a protest on White House letterhead that read, "I have just seen your lousy review of Margaret's concert. It seems to me you're a frustrated old man. Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a jock supporter below. (signed) HST, President."

            One of the consequences of World War II was a shift to the political right in American society. Already in the mid-1940s, there was a spirit of new conservatism that laid the groundwork for the Eisenhower era of the 1950s. Upon taking office, Truman tried to continue Roosevelt's policies, and sent to Congress a host of New Deal-style bills. These proposals did not move in bold new directions, but were really extensions of policies already in place, including raising the minimum wage from 40 to 65 cents per hour, expanding Social Security coverage, clearing slums and establishing a national housing plan, and creating a national health insurance plan.

            All of these Truman initiatives were unsuccessful. In Congress, a new conservative coalition had arisen to oppose New Deal liberalism and Roosevelt's internationalism. This conservative coalition brought together primarily Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans. Southern Democrats, on the whole, were fiscally, socially, and politically more conservative than Democrats in the Northeast and Midwest. In addition, they opposed Truman's liberal stance on civil rights for African-Americans. (Ultimately, Truman did what he could by executive order, such as ending segregation in the military.) Northern Republicans in the conservative coalition generally opposed government involvement in the economy at least insofar as that involvement benefited ordinary workers.

            The year 1946 was not a good one for Truman and his supporters. He was attacked from two sides. Liberals yearned for Roosevelt and criticized Truman's labor policies. Conservatives had the post-war inflation to fuel their anti-Truman fire. Truman's approval ratings dropped significantly--from 87 percent shortly after he took office to only 32 percent in early November, 1946, when the midterm congressional elections occurred. Republicans ran under the slogan "Had enough?" Apparently, many had; Republicans gained 11 seats in the 96 seat Senate and 56 seats in the House. The result was the first Republican controlled Congress since 1928.

            Truman decided to seek his own term as president, but few gave him much of a chance. Prior to the Democratic National Convention, most Democrats wanted to get rid of Truman. However, they did not want to break with tradition by failing to nominate the incumbent. They were thus forced to nominate Truman. The Republican candidate was the extremely popular Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. Dewey had built a significant reputation as a crime fighter taking on the mob. There were also two candidates representing groups that had splintered from the Democratic Party. One was the Progressive Party, whose candidate was Henry A. Wallace, who also had served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Progressives of the 1940s were not of the same mold as Theodore Roosevelt or Robert LaFollette. Instead, they were leftists seeking nationalized banking and greater government ownership and control of the economy. Progressive candidates were even backed by the Communist Party of the United States.

            Yet another party that had broken away from the Democratic Party called itself the States' Rights Party. At the 1948 Democratic Convention, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota (who would himself run for president in 1972) introduced a platform plank committing the government to civil rights. Harry Truman had progressive views on civil rights and was a strong advocate of Humphrey's proposal. In a 1947 speech, he stated, "Our immediate task is to remove the last remnants of the barriers which stand between millions of our citizens and their birthright. There is no justifiable reason for discrimination because of ancestry or religion or race or color." In protest, southern delegates stormed out and formed the States' Rights party. These so-called "Dixiecrats" nominated Governor (now Senator) Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (who has since become a Republican) for president.

            Thus, with the Democratic Party split three ways, it looked as if Dewey's win was inevitable. (Recall that Wilson had been elected several decades earlier when the Republican party had been split by the Progressives.) Truman decided on a "whistle-stop" campaign across the nation, traveling by train all over the nation. In his speeches to the crowds that formed wherever the train stopped, Truman attacked the "do-nothing Congress" which had not passed his proposals or many others except the Taft-Hartley Act, then viewed by labor unions as "union-busting" legislation. The results of the close election startled everyone, especially the Chicago Daily Tribune, which had printed up its morning edition before the west coast results were in with the banner headline: "Dewey Defeats Truman."

            Truman won the election of 1948 at least in part because the Republicans were overconfident that Dewey was a certain winner. They did not devote either the energy or the strategy to the campaign that was needed. In addition, Truman had shown courage in the face of incredible times. He had made the decision to drop the atomic bomb (which he did not even know existed at the time he became president). He had taken on his own party and challenged it to reform. He had showed great determination to win the election even when practically everyone in the nation thought he could not do it. Finally, and perhaps most important, Truman revitalized the New Deal coalition of labor, small farmers, and African-Americans making them a solid Democratic block for the next thirty years.

            After his successful election campaign, Truman set out to prove that New Deal-style liberalism was not yet dead. He proposed what he called the Fair Deal programs. In announcing the Fair Deal, Truman said that the survival politics of the New Deal with its dual policy of relief and reform were no longer what America needed. Instead, the Fair Deal would redistribute income among people of various classes, transferring money from the very rich to the very poor. Truman's Fair Deal goals came down to six major federal initiatives: civil rights, federal housing programs, extended unemployment insurance benefits, tax cuts for the lowest income groups, federal funding for education, and federal health care and health insurance program.

            The Fair Deal was a failure if judged in terms of the success of getting these initiatives made into law. No national health care program was established; very little was done in education (with the exception of the G.I. Bill); unemployment benefits were extended only slightly; and no civil rights legislation was passed. Truman did succeed in getting a major housing initiative passed in 1949. Otherwise, the conservative coalition blocked Truman at every turn. While Truman's election in 1948 proved that liberalism was not dead, it was also true that the country was moving further and further to the right.

            The economy also showed that the country was moving more to the right. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, two major problems faced the American economy: re-conversion of the wartime industry to peacetime industry and labor unions.  The problem of re-conversion had three main parts:

1. Spiraling inflation. During the war, the Office of Price Administration had controlled prices and wages, but after the war ended, conservatives wanted to eliminate these controls. However, consumers, who had experienced rationing and shortages of consumer goods to buy, had money burning holes in their pockets and still little to buy. Congress should have realized that when demand outruns supply, prices go up and the economy becomes inflationary unless there are controls to keep prices in check. In the spring of 1946, Congressional conservatives succeeded in removing price controls. As a consequence, prices shot up, fueling inflation.
2. Wartime to peacetime production. One reason for the continued shortage of consumer goods was the transition necessary to move from wartime to peacetime production. Business leaders had not known of the atomic bomb, and were not prepared for such a quick end to the war in the Pacific. Right up to the time the United States dropped the bomb, government estimates had been made that it would take at least a year and over a million men to invade and subdue the Japanese home islands. What looked like preparations for such an invasion had been going on. American factories were still making planes and tanks instead of radios, vacuum cleansers, and washing machines.
3. Employment of the returning G.I. To prevent the same situation that occurred after the First World War, when servicemen came home to find no jobs, few educational opportunities, and a housing crunch, Congress passed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act in 1944. The G.I. Bill, as it was popularly known, committed billions of federal dollars to support housing, education, health benefits, and job training and retraining for returning servicemen.
            The second crucial post-war issue was labor, as a wave of strikes swept the nation. During the Depression, wages had been quite low. During the war, wages were frozen. Strikes had also been all but forbidden during the war. So, there was a backlog of issues to be dealt with, not the least of which was wages that were not keeping pace with the rapidly rising post-war inflation. In 1946, 400,000 miners struck not once, but twice. In all, 4.6 million workers struck at one time or another during 1946. The conservatives' reply to the labor problem was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This act is still on the books and has been invoked by two presidents. It has four main provisions. Fist, it prohibited the closed shop, in which an employee could be forced to join a union in order to get or keep his job. Second, it prohibited secondary, "sympathy" strikes to support workers' strikes in other plants or industries. Third, it prohibited political contributions by unions, although unions quickly found around that provision by setting up "political education committees" or "political action committees." Finally, it gave the President the power to impose a "cooling-off" period to try to head off strikes. The Taft-Hartley Act amended some provisions of the Wagner Act, but also left many of them, including collective bargaining,  intact.

            Although it was intended by conservatives to weaken big labor, the Taft-Hartley Act may actually have strengthened big labor by forcing various competing or independent labor groups to work together in the face of heavy opposition. Over the next decade, the conservative attack on unions encouraged unions to share strategies and resources. For example, in 1955 two competing unions, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), joined forces. This combined AFL-CIO became the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, representing over 70 percent of the unionized labor force. The percent of the workforce that was unionized in the late 1940s and 1950s was considerably larger than it is today.

            Along with the political and economic swing to the right in the late 1940s and early 1950s was a psychological and emotional conservatism. There was a growing reluctance on the part of the people and those in power to have government confront and deal with economic problems. There was also a growing fear of Communism and radicalism as the Soviet Union seized effective control of a number of Eastern European governments. This "Second Red Scare" that swept through the county in the wake of World War II is most closely identified with Joseph McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin. But "McCarthyism" was just one part of a much larger Cold War mentality that was to develop in the decade after World War II. The trials, denunciations, black lists, and general paranoia about Communism of the Second Red Scare showed the public face of the Cold War. The Cold War, the struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States, transformed anti-communism from a right-wing ideology into mainstream politics. The Cold War mentality and anti communist ideology are still visible in the current case of the child Elian Gonzales.

            The House of Representatives had created an Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as early as May 26, 1938, in order to investigate disloyalty among fascists and communists. During World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) concentrated on labor unrest. After the war, as Eastern European countries became Soviet-controlled, it gained strength and began looking for left-wing Americans who might be communist sympathizers. Soon, its focus became strictly anti-communist. HUAC started looking for Communists who could be lurking in any place in the United States in any job. The search led the committee to Hollywood in 1947, where suspected left-leaning actors, writers, and directors were allegedly spreading "subversive" "communist messages" through their movies. One actor who was ready to name names was future President, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan.  Reagan had come to Hollywood as an ardent New Deal Democrat, but when the political winds began to shift, he became a conservative Republican.  HUAC did not uncover any of the systematic subversion it had alleged in Hollywood.  Nevertheless, in the public mind, being questioned or even mentioned became an indication of guilt.  Thus, many suspected leftists found themselves on a blacklist that shut them out of jobs in cinema, radio, television, and theater for the next ten years.

            The Alger Hiss case of 1948-1950 was another HUAC investigation and the second event on the road to full-blown McCarthyism. Alger Hiss was a Harvard educated New Dealer who had come to Washington during the Roosevelt administration. At the time of the trial, he was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His accuser was a self-described "dumpy, middle-aged, unhappy scoundrel" named Whittaker Chambers, who would go on to become a senior editor of Time magazine. Chambers accused Hiss of having spied for the Soviet Union in the 1930s, when Hiss had been employed at the State Department. Chambers claimed that he and Hiss had belonged to the same espionage ring, and that Hiss had given him copies of secret State Department documents. The problem was that hard, incontrovertible evidence was missing.

            The Hiss case was taken up by then-Congressman, later President Richard M. Nixon, and won him his first national notice. (Service on the committee also brought the first national recognition to future president John F. Kennedy.)  When Chambers claimed that a microfilm of the secret documents was hidden in a pumpkin in a field near his farm, Nixon took members of the press with him to document the uncovering of the microfilm.  The statute of limitations for an espionage charge had expired, so Hiss was prosecuted for perjury, that is, for lying under oath.  The result of the first trial was a hung jury.  After the second trial Hiss was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. When Hiss was finally released from prison, he worked for vindication for decades. That moment finally came in 1992, when Hiss was 87.  A Russian general in charge of Soviet intelligence archives declared that Hiss had never been a spy, but rather a victim of Cold War hysteria and the McCarthy Red-hunting era.  Hiss died on November 15, 1996, just four days after his 92 birthday.

            As part of this growing anti-communist hysteria, in 1947, President Harry Truman ordered the Justice Department to draw up a list of possible "subversives" in government. Under the terms of Truman's loyalty program, a federal employee could be fired "if reasonable grounds exist for belief that the person involved is disloyal." Truman not only equated Communism with Fascism and Nazism, but viewed Communism as the worst of the three.

            Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) was a Republican U.S. senator Wisconsin. He did more than any single member of Congress to whip up anti-communist hysteria. McCarthy was a WWII veteran who liked to call himself "Tailgunner Joe," although he actually flew more desk than plane during the war. First elected to the Senate in 1946, McCarthy did not do much for the first four years of his term. His name was not attached to bills of any significance, and even the Republican party leadership considered him a political lightweight. Then on February 9, 1950, he changed all of that by dropping a political bombshell. McCarthy gave a speech before the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, WV, in which he announced he had a list of 205 communists in the State Department. No one in the press actually saw the names on the list, but McCarthy's announcement made the national news.

            McCarthy continued to repeat the same sort of charges over and over again, although the number of communists on his list fluctuated from speech to speech. No "list" was ever made public, however; McCarthy would always promise to make it available at a later date. Senior Republicans in the Senate did not like McCarthy, but appreciated his attacks on members of the Truman administration. McCarthy labeled Secretary of State Dean Acheson "Red Dean." He claimed that World War II General George Marshall, put in charge of the efforts to rebuild Europe known as the Marshall Plan, had been "hoodwinked into aiding a great conspiracy." According to McCarthy, Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson, who would run for president on the Democratic ticket in 1952, "endorsed and would continue to endorse the suicidal, Kremlin-directed policies of this nation." McCarthy would later charge that the Army's officer corps of harboring communists and even attack the brother of President Eisenhower as a communist sympathizer. The fact that the United States, the power that had won World War II was not winning the 1950-53 war against tiny North Korea appeared to many Americans to give credibility to the argument that "subversives" were at work in the government.

            All of this political and economic conservatism was taking place in a climate of political and social conformity. "Loyalty" oaths were required by many states for teachers and public employees; even some private employers required loaylty oaths. One state required professional wrestlers to take a loyalty oath before stepping into the ring. A campaign of book censorship began in Indiana, where Robin Hood (said to have Communist leanings because Robin took from the rich nobles and gave to the poor) was pulled from the shelves. Even the Girl Scout Handbook (which had a chapter on the United Nations) was banned in some places before the censorship hysteria abated. Baseball's Cincinnati Reds were renamed the "Redlegs" for a time. A face powder called "Russian Sable" was recalled from stores and renamed "Dark Dark." Starting in Dearborn, Michigan, and spreading to other parts of the country, there were "Miss Loyalty" beauty contests.

            McCarthy personally continued his anti-communist crusade until 1954. Unlike other congressional investigators, McCarthy seemed not to notice that the administration had changed in 1952. With Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House, McCarthy's campaigns against subversion in the government became an attack on his own party, and McCarthy became a great liability for the Republicans. In the spring of 1954 McCarthy took on the United States Army, charging that it had promoted a dentist accused of communism. This proved to be McCarthy's downfall. For the first time the hearings were televised, finally allowing the general public to see McCarthy as a blustering bully and his investigations as nothing but a scam. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure him for his conduct and strip him of his privileges. McCarthy died three years later, but the term "McCarthyism" lives on to describe anti-communist fervor, reckless accusations, and guilt by association.

            The ranks of McCarthy's supporters were generally defined along political, religious, and occupational lines. The coalition of support came largely from Republicans, Catholics, fundamentalist Protestant denominations, and blue-collar workers. Different kinds of support began to emerge transforming what McCarthy was doing in the Senate into a national political movement. For example, television evangelist Oral Roberts began his career with a series of tent revivals and faith healing sessions called "The Oral Roberts Christian Anti-Communist Crusade." Candy manufacturer Robert Welch appealing primarily to fellow Republican businessmen for support and membership launched "The John Birch Society" named for a relatively unknown American soldier who Welch say as a martyr to communism. A host of similar Christian and secular organizations soon joined the ranks of anti-communist forces. One prominent Democrat who supported McCarthy was Joseph Kennedy, a Catholic. Kennedy secured for his son Robert a job as an investigator for Senator McCarthy.

            Although the Soviet Union and the United States were allied in World War II, once the common enemy had been defeated, the alliance quickly came apart. Different people have different views on the origins of the Cold War. Some put the entire blame on the Soviet Union, others entirely on the United States. Still others blame both equally. In essence, the source of the Cold War can be found in the two opposing views of the post-war world. The United States viewed the world as an interdependent whole in which free trade would make American goods and services available to all nations. This was necessary in order to prevent another Depression. In addition, Americans were proud of their democratic system, believed in Manifest Destiny, and wanted to bring their version of enlightenment and self-determination to the rest of the world, especially to the newly-independent states of Asia and Africa. The Soviet Union had an entirely different view of the post-war world. By some estimates, it had suffered military and civilian losses of 20 million people during the war. In addition, many more were killed in Stalin's purges and forced labor camps. Returning Red Army soldiers who had been prisoners of war were executed as traitors. Stalin feared that Germany would regain its strength in a matter of decades and launch yet another attack on Russian soil. The Soviet Union wanted to ward off future attacks/invasions by having defensible borders also by having friendly regimes on its western borders. Its goals, including rebuilding its own economy, could be achieved by having client states in Eastern Europe. Thus it had to deny the United States both free access to markets and the opportunity to export its democracy.

            The conflict between the world views of the United States and the Soviet Union came to a head with rebellions in Iran, Greece, and Turkey. During World War II, the British had occupied southern Iran, while the Soviets had occupied the North in the area bordering the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. At war's end, neither side wanted to pull out because of oil concerns. The Soviet Union had the additional reason of wanting to protect its southern border. Great Britain asked the United States for aid in removing a socialist head of the Iranian government, putting in his place the pro-British, pro-Western Shah of Iran, and keeping the Shah in power. In 1946, the United Nations negotiated a settlement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but the session was marked by name-calling by the American and Soviet delegates. Even though an agreement was reached, the tense atmosphere of the Cold War had already been established.

            In Greece, communist-led insurgents threatened to overthrow the corrupt, British-led monarchy. Although the insurgents were helped by communist Yugoslavia, not the Soviet Union, Truman was eager to fight Communists of every stripe. Dean Acheson, then undersecretary of state, stated that a Communist victory in Greece would be disastrous for the United States and the Western world. He expressed this fear in the so-called "Rotten Apple Theory:" if Greece and Turkey went communist, then like a rotten apple in a barrel of fruit, the communist menace would be spread to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. This theory would later be restated under different circumstances as the "Domino Theory."

            On March 12, 1947, Harry Truman appeared before Congress and set forth what would become known as the Truman Doctrine. He asked Congress for $500 million in aid for Greece and Turkey in order to put down Communist uprisings in each of those nations. In order to justify U.S. involvement in the internal affairs of other countries, Truman argued, "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. . . . The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms." The Truman Doctrine not only came to influence U.S. foreign policy toward Greece, it would be invoked later to defend United States involvement in Korea, Vietnam, and other international struggles of the Cold War.

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